By Gordon Medlock, Ph.D., Chair of Meaning Summit I, What is the Nature and Conceptualization of Meaning?

Meaning Summit

The three Meaning Summit panels at this year’s conference took on the challenge of searching for consensus regarding the construct of personal meaning and related issues of measurement and integration of multicultural perspectives.

In the first panel discussion on the nature and conceptualization of meaning, Alex Pattakos, Veronika Huta, and Crystal Park agreed that the topic of personal meaning, particularly as it relates to issues of spirituality, is a vast topic that is not easily operationalized and measured. Park acknowledged that that we will never come up with a total consensus regarding concepts like spirituality and personal meaning, but strongly supports the endeavor to arrive at shared understandings that facilitate research and clinical applications.

In the second panel discussion on the conditions and measurement of meaning, Michael Steger emphasized the challenge of establishing validity for the construct of personal meaning. He raised the question: What is the gold-plated behavioral indicator of meaning that doesn’t also indicate something else? What is the distinctive measure of meaning that doesn’t also get measured by something else – such as happiness, positive affect, relationship satisfaction, etc.? He views this as our main struggle as researchers, and suggests that our job is to provide a pool of resources to dip into to provide useful approaches to addressing that question.  Steger adopts a pragmatic approach, looking for behaviors that seem to work best to differentiate meaning from other constructs. He has focused on the motivational dimension of life purpose and the cognitive dimension of comprehension or understanding that orients us toward a desired future, and is investigating the positive impact of a sense of life meaning on longevity and long term health.

Dr. Huta agreed with the focus on purpose as a core aspect of personal meaning, but took a more existential rather than cognitive view of understanding as the personal experience of  relatedness to things, events, and people – understanding oneself as part of a larger totality. Paul Wong made a similar point in emphasizing the existential rather than the cognitive aspect of personal meaning, while agreeing with Steger on the importance of purpose and understanding as key dimensions of personal meaning.

Bob Neimeyer further elaborated this contextual aspect of meaning with his account of an “epigenetic systems model” of meaning making. He emphasized the point that meaning-making always occurs in a context that is historical, cultural, and linguistic, and that it is inherently communicative – arising from within us and between us. He also reinforces the point that meaning-making is not primarily a cognitive activity but a way of acting upon the world.

During the third panel discussion on the social/cultural construction of meaning, Alexander Batthyany helped to clarify the sense in which personal meaning can be considered as objective and not simply subjective. He supported the realist position of Victor Frankl that meaning is objective in the sense that it exists in the world as a set of objective potentialities that we as individuals can choose to actualize.  Meaning on this account is grounded in conscience and in actions to promote values and human well-being.  Dr. Wong also emphasized the importance of preserving this aspect of Frankl’s legacy in our understanding of the ethical and spiritual aspects of personal meaning – a point which was also expressed by Pattakos during the first panel discussion.

Finally, the discussion of measurement of meaning raised a number of questions about self-reports, construct validity, and multi-dimensional measures.  Joshua Hicks addressed the problem of the highly subjective and variable nature of an individual’s self-reported judgments of life meaning, and suggested strategies to make self-reports more predictive.  Stefan Schulenberg discussed the issue of construct validity in relation to the Purpose in Life Test, suggesting the importance of including qualitative measures over and above the researcher impulse to simply come up with a number to quantify meaning.  Steger emphasized the value of looking to multi-dimensional sources of meaning as a way to provide more specific measurement criteria– e.g. relationship, work, spirituality, altruism, etc.  And Neimeyer highlighted the value of qualitative measures associated with specific contexts of meaning-making, such as themes which emerge in the personal narratives of individuals seeking meaning in relation to situations of loss and bereavement.

In all these respects, the panel discussions served to orient the profession toward the ongoing challenge of developing constructs, approaches, and methods to support the fundamental human quest for meaning.


Note: Apologies to other panel participants whose views are not included in this brief summary. The space limitation precluded a broader discussion in this venue.